Given the instability of the North Caucasus in general and Dagestan in particular, violence there seldom attracts much attention these days. But a new clash between villagers in Meusisha and officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and riot police (OMON)—combined with other developments in the region—appears to have called into question Moscow’s claims that the North Caucasus is calm and under control. These events have seriously unnerved the Kremlin and even prompted Vladimir Putin to begin changing security services (siloviki) commanders in the North Caucasus (Stolica-s.su, Kavkazsky Uzel, November 5). What is especially noteworthy—and for Moscow, worrisome—is that the new Dagestani protests are not like the ones that have broken out there in the past but instead combine elements from elsewhere, though with local traditions. The current demonstrations are about infrastructure and have arisen because officials are refusing to listen to citizens, who object to what the authorities are doing or not doing. More quickly than in other parts of Russia, however, these street rallies have been devolving into violence.
Since early October, residents of Meusisha, a Dargin village 150 kilometers from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala, have organized meetings in opposition to the government’s plans to build what they insist is a completely unnecessary and radically overpriced canal. Their meetings have been peaceful, and they asked to negotiate with officials. But at no time were the authorities (at either the local or republic level) willing to speak with them. Then, at the end of the month, some 300 villagers organized to block the arrival of equipment sent to begin building the planned waterway. The republican authorities responded aggressively, sending in FSB and OMON units, sparking clashes between the villagers and the siloviki. No arrests were made so far, but several people were hospitalized on both sides (Novye Izvestia, Chernovik.net, November 1; Chernovik.net, October 11; Echo of Moscow, November 2; Kavkaz Realii, October 30).
Since that time, the residents of Meusisha have continued their protests on an around-the-clock basis. Relatives and friends are bringing them food and supplies, in much the same way that supporters of the anti-trash demonstrators have done at Shiyes (Arckhangelsk Oblast) (see EDM, January 23, May 28)—despite the fact that it now appears Moscow plans to use whatever force is required to shut down those eco-protests in the High North (Realtribune.ru, November 12). Because of that, there is the obvious temptation to view what is taking place in Meusisha as simply a southern Shiyes, especially given that it is smaller and more isolated. But there are three important differences between the Dagestani protests and the northern Russian ones. And those key differences mean that what has happened in the Dagestani village will receive less attention even though it is likely to have even more severe consequences—which is why Putin has reason to be concerned.
The first difference is that the fight in Meusisha has so far been between villagers and the republic authorities, not between a region and Moscow. But the villagers are overwhelmingly members of a single ethnic group, the Dargins; this gives ethnic energy to their protests, especially since the regime in Makhachkala is dominated by Avars and the one in Moscow is of course Russian. Consequently, the conflict over the canal is almost certain to become a clash between two of the largest nationalities in that North Caucasus republic and, thus, more explosive—a much different outcome than in Shiyes.
Second, the Meusisha protests are about an issue that simply does not have the resonance of the Shiyes demonstrations against plans to dump Moscow’s trash in the regions. Precisely because the issue may not be as important to Russians, many in the Dargin village appear to believe they can act with confidence that the Kremlin will be unable to mobilize the broader Russian population against them. At the same time, the Kremlin’s potential attempts to mobilize against them using propaganda themes like accusing them of Islamist terrorism would likely backfire. All the center can do is employ force. But such a move will have two negative consequences for the authorities: it will call into question the capacity of the republic to manage the situation, and it will increasingly transform a local conflict into one between the region and Moscow.
Third, the Meusisha demonstrators have based their objections to the canal project not only on the fact that they say it is unnecessary but also on the assertion that it is overpriced—almost certainly an indication that those behind it hoped to reap profits for themselves or their allies. The authorities will want to keep this quiet, but the population, already hard pressed, will be more inclined to continue the rallies. Thus, in this Dagestani village, there is a linking up of ethnicity, infrastructure concerns, and anti-corruption attitudes. That combination certainly results in more volatility than any of these issues would by themselves.
The protests in Meusisha and the resulting clashes with the FSB and OMON has created dangers the Kremlin is quite worried about, retired siloviki and regional analysts say (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 9). They indicate that Putin is “dissatisfied” with the work of the security services in the North Caucasus. Moreover, political commentator Dmitry Oreshkin argues that “the Kremlin has the sense that the situation is passing out of its control.” It is doing so in a unique way, and the current siloviki commanders do not know how to respond, just as they did not know how to respond to protests in Ingushetia or to ethnic clashes in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Putin is thus doing what he typically does: changing out the local leaders. Analysts with whom Kavkaz Uzel spoke suggest he will continue to do so until the situation improves. To the extent that happens, Meusisha, a name unknown to most up to now, may come to be as widely recognized as Shiyes.